Expanding the Church or Just Moving It?

By: FireTag
September 17, 2011

“Finally have put a finger on an issue I have with the priesthood of this church. A lot of you want us to embrace, uphold, accept and defend the practicing homosexual. Why is it that because I do not agree with you that you try to paint me as hateful to everyone else?”

Thus began a discussion earlier this week on the Community of Christ open group facebook page, that quickly became heated and expanded beyond issues related to homosexuality to explore the deep differences between progressives and traditionalists in that denomination. (Expansion of sacramental rites to gays — including marriage, the right to peform gay marriages, and the right to be ordained while in a monogamous same sex partnership — is to be considered at national conferences within the USA, Canada, and Australia either in 2012 or 2013.)

At the same time, Andrew S. was leading a discussion on this blog on how and why various progressives in the LDS church joined together or fractured in their attempts to make the church more inclusive of progressive positions. I was amazed by how the positions in each communal reference frame had counterparts in post discussions — almost to the point that I could have, with little editing, superimposed one discussion within the other. For example, would you have thought I was talking about the LDS instead of the CofChrist if I had edited the first paragraph of this post to read, “A lot of you refuse to embrace, uphold, accept and defend the practicing homosexual”?

As someone (I believe it was John Hamer), explained, a key difference between the progressive-traditionalist discussions in the two denominations at present is that in the Community of Christ, the progressives “won”. That church proclaims itself as more inclusive, and less likely to defend core beliefs from the Restoration tradition as once understood — such as unique priesthood authority or prophetic utterances of Joseph Smith — than does the LDS. The CofChrist may or may not change policies toward gender in the United States church by 2013; it is implausible to the extreme that it would support an anti-gay-marriage legislative package in any US state publicly or privately.

The Community of Christ, then, has clearly moved leftward over the last generation — perhaps even to the point where it may be considered more Protestant than Restorationist. Yet, this did not lead to any resolution of the divide between progressives and traditionalists. The progressives won; they did not achieve inclusiveness with traditionalists. As I tried to illustrate in the graphic above, the Community of Christ has not succeeded in enlarging the boundaries of the church, or of making them obviously more centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ in which there is “no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:27-29). The boundaries of the church have simply been moved; there is, apparently, still “progressive and traditionalist” in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Now the progressives in the LDS and the traditionalists in the CofChrist are, oddly, almost in mirror positions of each other — finding themselves on the outside wondering whether the boundary can be stretched to include them without giving up core elements of their own identity. And within each denomination, there are many on the inside of those boundaries who feel that if the boundaries are pulled further in one direction, their core identities, and even their salvation and that of their families may be at stake.

There is one important asymmetry here, however: the LDS holds to the notion that it is the “one and only true church”, but the CofChrist no longer does. Indeed, that is a core element of faith claims that anchor traditionalists in the LDS church in the way that other core elements of faith anchor traditionalist Evangelicals or Catholics. To redefine such core elements is not as simple as “just follow Jesus”, because such core beliefs have been internalized as what it means to follow Jesus.

To the contrary, the experience of the CofChrist suggests that multiculturalism, in practice, is merely itself the cultural value of a particular human culture. In fact, even the discussion of gender issues has been isolated by CofChrist leadership because of its possible impact on persecution of  leaders and members in congregations in many emerging nations. It is seen as possible, and necessary to discuss gender now in certain Western nations to avoid schism, but too hot to discuss in other nations lest it actually provoke schism. Paradoxically, the question of inclusiveness transforms into a tension to produce multiple exclusive communities.

In the CofChrist, leadership is attempting to respond to this dynamic by forming national churches (or gerrymandered Apostolic fields of culturally-similar countries — the organizational guidance that triumphs is not yet clear) with greater theological autonomy. In the LDS, where uniformity is more enforced down to the ward level, alternative structures such as the internet communities form. But I think both forms are responses to that same tension to produce multiple exclusive communities.

Now, the immediate reaction is that having multiple exclusive communities is a bad thing. It fits neither the mental image of a one true church or of a multicultural ideal. But for me, it would seem necessary for Christian institutions to reexamine their motivations for building community and their expectations about what such communities ought to accomplish.

It is critical in this regard to note a key point about what triggers formation of community in the natural world. Communities form when, and only when, they provide something of value to the elements that compose them. It is only when the proto-community becomes very good at providing that value that an identity as a community emerges. And it is only then that the elements begin to adapt themselves to fit into and promote the continued expansion and well-being of the community.

We see this in evolution (and I use this example knowing full well the delicious irony that some use acceptance of evolution itself as a faithfulness-defining boundary), for example. Molecules come together in a series of cyclic reactions that sustain the existence of the molecules against thermodynamic disruption – a simplistic community. They separate and differentiate into individual types of cycles by substituting reactions and/or catalysts that increase their yield and/or sustainability. The most successful individuals become more complex over time, incorporating additional steps that gain a measure of influence over the surrounding environment. Eventually that controlled environment becomes a cell, with the capability to replicate and to mutate, so that the replicating core of the cell becomes a community of information-processing genes and regulatory chemicals. Other once-independent cellular communities (like the mitochondria) are incorporated to carry out specific functions that benefit the survival of each component community. The cells develop permanent linkage to other cells, forming multi-cellular communities. Eventually, the cells begin to differentiate from each other and adopt individual functions, and organisms form. The organisms reproduce, separate, and begin to develop their own individual natures. Eventually the separate types of organisms unite to form an ecosystem, a still more complex level of community. Ecosystems individualize, and so on, seemingly ad infinitum.

A balance between community building and community differentiation is central to driving this process forward, and selecting community building as more fundamental than community separation seems as arbitrary as saying that the chicken is more important than the egg.

Perhaps we need a better way of viewing our “boundary problem” than either enlarging our boxes, defending them where they stand, or moving them to encompass different sets of people.  Perhaps we need to consider obliterating the boundaries instead. There is no way I know to do that, of course, but I do have an approximation in mind.

Perhaps we need to define our position in respect to the gospel’s boundaries more like the way electrons define their positions in respect to the boundaries of atoms: very fuzzily and transiently. Perhaps it is becoming reconciled to the notion of being uncertain about where we are without becoming fearful about where we are that permits us ultimately to become reconciled to each other and to God. Perhaps detaching uncertainty from fear is what living by faith is all about.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

22 Responses to Expanding the Church or Just Moving It?

  1. Stephen Marsh on September 17, 2011 at 4:32 PM

    The progressives won; they did not achieve inclusiveness with traditionalists. As I tried to illustrate in the graphic above, the Community of Christ has not succeeded in enlarging the boundaries of the church

    That is a very well made point.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  2. Stephen Marsh on September 17, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    In the CofChrist, leadership is attempting to respond to this dynamic by forming national churches (or gerrymandered Apostolic fields of culturally-similar countries

    I see in the Anglican Church US congregations attaching themselves to African chains of authority in that sort of situation. Makes for an interesting dynamic to watch.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  3. Andrew S on September 17, 2011 at 5:07 PM

    Very good post (although not entirely inspiring, perhaps because it goes totally against what I would have liked to see happen.)

    The last paragraph is something I’ll definitely have to think about…

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  4. Ray on September 17, 2011 at 5:38 PM

    Fascinating post, FireTag.

    “Perhaps detaching uncertainty from fear is what living by faith is all about.”

    I’ve written extensively on my own blog about embracing uncertainty as an expression of true faith, so your last paragraph really resonates for me.

    “Perhaps it is becoming reconciled to the notion of being uncertain about where we are without becoming fearful about where we are that permits us ultimately to become reconciled to each other and to God.”

    Fwiw, to use an old analogy, it’s really easy for explorers to separate uncertainty from fear – but it’s much harder (and, sometimes, impossible) for settlers to do so. I think most of the people who read and comment regularly here and other group sites are explorers to some degree.

    Fan Favorite! Do you like this comment as well? Thumb up 7

  5. Jeff Spector on September 17, 2011 at 8:06 PM

    So, is it as simple as saying the “progressives” may win the battle, but ultimately lose the war?”

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  6. FireTag on September 17, 2011 at 8:48 PM

    Stephen and Andrew:

    Thank you.

    Ray:

    Now I’ve got to think about that settler versus explorer analogy some more.

    Jeff:

    It’s hard to tell, because I’m not sure that the objective of the “war” has to do with the right structure of the church. What is the larger structure that we expect the church to be evolving toward — and I think that evolution is really what’s going on here?

    Is the Kingdom of God really supposed to fit all the 10+ billion souls who have ever lived into a structure centered on a church that has already been fully revealed? Those that are ready to “settle” in that concept may be completely correct in doing so, but many here are “explorers” that are considering expansions of new light to come. We’ve been promised that God’s given us all we need, but that would be true even when He plans to give us more that we WILL need.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  7. [...] have their own mysterious and disturbing in-group language. Politics plays a big role, even for liberal denominations, and are secularists getting into the [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  8. Rich Brown on September 18, 2011 at 3:03 PM

    I’m not fully convinced that progressives have “won” in the Community of Christ. Perhaps this is just splitting hairs, but I’d prefer to describe the situation as “nontraditionalists” triumphing over the traditionalists. There has obviously been a shift leftward over the past few decades.

    However, the folks who might best be called progressives in the CofChrist were more or less pushed aside by the current top leadership of the church after the resignation of church president Grant McMurray a few years back. There is certainly a form of progressiveness in the church today but it appears, at least to me, that it’s somewhat lacking in substance.

    I suppose another way of saying that is that there’s a lot of good PR going on (which more cynical types even than I would call fund-raising programs), but where is a concern for theological gravitas and educating new generations in the beliefs that ought to lay behind our actions, individually and as a faith community?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  9. FireTag on September 18, 2011 at 9:53 PM

    Rich:

    I agree that I oversimplified to some extent. I thought it perhaps would be too much for one post to add the comparison of the progressives who left the Community of Christ (individually or to join more universalist denominations) versus sects that think the LDS changed too much.

    But I think that only adds to the point: the inability to achieve inclusiveness by either the liberal or uber-liberal still means we’re moving boundaries rather than expanding them.

    Yeah, and I agree with you about the PR/fund raising emphasis over substance a lot of the time. But a tendency toward cynicism is one of my more apparent flaws. I believe in happy endings, but I’m pretty sure the middle is going to smart.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  10. Justin on September 19, 2011 at 7:26 AM

    I liked your analogy using cellular biology. You know, we can’t really tell if an egg is a way for chickens to make more chickens — or if the chicken is a way for the egg to make more eggs. We can’t tell if we are a brain with a stomach to process food into nutrients — or if we are a stomach with a brain to think about where to find good food to eat. Etc.

    An organism may be a differentiated system — but there are no “parts” — meaning there are no pieces that can be considered outside the context of the whole system. Meaning, there is no proper understanding of hand without arm, and no proper understanding of arm without shoulder, etc. etc.

    Life in anarchic. A fetus doesn’t arise in a womb by a bunch of mechanics screwing all the parts together, with the foreman directing all the action. It’s more like a crystal — just one big, spontaneous “doing”.

    However, pretty much all Gentiles are -archists [i.e. they are all for one -archist situation or another].

    I think that there should be local solutions to local problems — and trying to make a pyramidal hierarchy fit onto a “world-wide church” only leads to homogenization of the “brand” [like we see with local brews vs. national brands of beer -- or that good local burger place vs. Burger King -- etc.].

    I think the “tent” issues all arise because people are going on about who should hold the power — instead of “seek[ing] not for power, but to pull it down.”

    Like this comment? Thumb up 3

  11. FireTag on September 19, 2011 at 9:42 AM

    Justin:

    I actually learned that last idea as a child from an H. Beam Piper space opera: the bad guys, no matter what they say, never want to pull down the throne; they want to sit on it. The test of the “good guys”, I increasingly believe, is the willingness to walk away from power.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  12. Justin on September 19, 2011 at 12:18 PM

    Well, the deal is FireTag, that there are two images for “power”:

    (1) Actual power
    (2) Appearance of power

    No power … can … be maintained by virtue of the priesthood.

    Thus, what LDS define as the “power and authority of God” holds no power. So where is power found then?

    Only in “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, and love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge,” etc.

    Meaning the traits that would achieve the voluntary cooperation of a universe full of independent agents that have been guaranteed to have the power to exist as agents unto themselves — without compulsion, coercion, or force.

    The false image that has the appearance of power is what puts itself into the pyramid hierarchies where the greater rule over the lesser by being habitually obeyed by them and who have the “Divine Right” to rule.

    The true image of actual power is what puts itself without -archy, where the greater serve the lesser and have the “common consent” of the people to rule.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  13. FireTag on September 19, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    Justin:

    Not a bad formulation at all, particularly in regard to the “appearance of power”, although I think in more pantheistic terms, so I think the question of voluntary or involuntary cooperation with God isn’t even on the table.

    Do I voluntarily or involuntarily cooperate with the law of gravity? God laughs.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  14. Justin on September 19, 2011 at 3:01 PM

    Not really — because the “laws” were agreed upon by the individual agents that constitute your spirit and physical body [including yourself] — so they are still voluntarily obeying the Lord without compulsory means.

    Voluntary cooperation with God or not is entirely the question on the table — because either all things that exist are agents unto themselves, or they are not. Either God’s righteous dominion uses force and compulsion or it cannot [without becoming unrighteous].

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  15. FireTag on September 19, 2011 at 4:45 PM

    Needed to add the following link because of its relevance to the OP:

    http://youngstranger.blogspot.com/2011/09/kirtland.html

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  16. FireTag on September 19, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    “Not really — because the “laws” were agreed upon by the individual agents that constitute your spirit and physical body…”

    In the view I have, which relies on the modern constructs of parallel universes, the notion of INDIVIDUALITY changes to one spirit, many bodies, so CHOICE itself has to be redefined. That’s too complicated to get into without getting the thread completely off track. So may we discuss general free will issues another time?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  17. Justin on September 19, 2011 at 5:13 PM

    Sure — you’re the contributor — just write and post away and I’ll read it/give my thoughts.

    I doubt I could switch-over from a view the scriptures support [e.g. a single universe filled with independent agents allowed to freely manifest their will] and buy into a novel construct based on modern scientific understanding and/or philosophical reasonings — but I always take such things for what they’re worth, seeing where they might fit in with what the scriptures describe.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  18. FireTag on September 19, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    Justin:

    Thanks for your patience.

    I’d have a hard time making the switch myself if I didn’t think it connected to the scriptures BETTER than our present understanding.

    In the meanwhile, you might look at the link and associated commentary below. I think you’ll like the ties to the Book of Moses.

    http://thefirestillburning.wordpress.com/2009/06/03/youve-read-this-post-before/

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  19. Justin on September 19, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    the notion of INDIVIDUALITY changes to one spirit, many bodies,

    I get this, to some extent — the collective consciousness, archetypes, communal “idea-space”, morphic fields, etc. The Eastern concept of “person” as “persona” — the same One-Thing, just doing a Justin-dance, a FireTag-dance, a flower-dance, mouse-dance, etc.

    So I might be more open to what you’re saying than I may have originally let on…

    …But I guess I’ll stop talking about it and just wait to see what you write.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  20. FireTag on September 19, 2011 at 10:21 PM

    This is not the Eastern oneness I’m specifically speaking of here, but one Justin spirit in astronomical numbers of variations and copies of Justin’s body.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  21. [...] the scope of this post. I would like to take it up later. But for now, read FireTag’s post on expanding the Church vs. moving it which is interesting in it’s own right. My basic take is that the CoC pretty much followed [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  22. [...] found this interesting quote from FireTag recently that I think expresses the same point, if somewhat differently: Communities form when, and [...]

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

Archives

%d bloggers like this: